Earth's environment falling apart. Food production suffering from climate change. Overpopulation leading to all sorts of issues. Fascism rising. Don't worry, this has nothing to do with our current reality. Rather, it is the far future of the year 2003. When, at least, all of the world's governments have agreed to hand over ultimate authority to a newly formed United Nations agency ECOM. Whose headquarters are located on a space station in order to keep true overview of everything.
The way out the game presents is therefore to essentially establish a worldwide, centralized dictatorship. It is a benevolent one, granted, unlike the fascist regimes on the rise these days in reality. Nevertheless, it is what it is. A power fantasy not unheard of in frame of computer games, but made all the more severe by the fact that this one is grounded so strongly in our reality.
The idea of it is, of course, tempting. It is the reason for the rise of such “leader figures” in our world. The promise of the strong-willed saviour who will sweep all the bad to the side. Or rather under the carpet? And what does this game make of it? It shows its players that maybe, just maybe, the world is not quite as simple.
It really gives its players more or less full reins. Activities are split into proactive and reactive decisionmaking. General policy can be set at global, continental or local level. The taxes paid in one country can be used to subsidize life in another, or to build up infrastructure. What kind of lifestyle should be promoted? Maybe it could be a good idea to finally reduce meat consumption, for example? Rainforest protection?
What is interesting in this respect, for sure, is how far the game goes into simulating attempts to change aspects of society. Such as the already mentioned question of discouraging meat consumption. Whereas the core of the political system itself (how society is governed) as well as the economy (capitalism reigns supreme, it's just a question of the degree of regulating it) remain untouched in their foundations.
Though then, there are events just pouring in from all over the world. Remember, the game has you, personally, taking care of the complete world. While the game clock ticks on, there is usually hardly enough time to even glimpse at all the headlines. It definitely isn't possible to take care of everything.
This, of course, is an artificial difficulty factor in gameplay terms, stemming solely from the strange setup of one person being tasked to oversee everything alone. It is, however, a good decision in terms of gameplay to make it all about overwhelming the player, as it forces taking decisions by the second, without too much of a deep-dive into each. Which goes as far as often leaving no time for the proactive actions at all. Which, then, of course, leads to certain failure.
Some of those events may even be the result of the player's attempts at actually making a change. People fearing for their privileges, the way of life they are used to. Too radical changes on too short term cause unrest quickly. Even if objectively speaking necessary. Cultural specificity in different regions have to be taken into account. Short-sighted profit once again takes precedence in people's minds over long-term prosperity. Leading to interesting balancing acts.
So, is this really the ultimate, fine-grained simulation of worldwide society, economy and ecology? Of course not. In many ways, it is actually rather shallow. For example, the game clearly has no notion of international exchange, in the way of one country's population knowing about the status of another, potentially leading to jealousy etc. Dependencies between the different areas simulated, such as economy and ecology, are rather one-dimensional. All those simplifications make sense in gameplay terms in light of the already discussed overwhelming strategy already making everything hard enough.
It is an agenda game which takes such a clear position, transporting clear messages with respect to the development of society. Its views on the inevitability of changing our ways in order to survive. Considering that clarity of messages, the designer's blind spot concerning their choice of implementing the necessary policy by abolishing all participatory agency of the complete worldwide population is truly strange. It is clear that this meta level of addressing the merits of different possible political systems has not been on the list of topics to be reflected in the game.
Yet, even if unintended, for those who do manage to get into it, an implicit level emerges nevertheless. While playing, I found myself cursing those “stupid people” who “just don't get it”. Fully immersed in to onslaught of incoming messages, hardly finding the time to work on actual long-term policy. Though still believing in my abilities as an all-knowing saviour. Just that after switching the game off, when rational thinking goes back to normal, the ickiness of it all came back. Feeling dirty about the arrogance of having just decided about billions of people, without ever consulting a single one of them. Even if virtual ones.
Finally, I have not saved that world. I doubt I ever will, also because I doubt whether I'll even try again. It is, upon reflection, an experience which is intellectually highly stimulating, increasingly interesting to reflect upon the more days go by. All of this easily overshadows the need, the lure to actually play again, however. Even if the first attempts were highly motivating as described, the frantic gameplay leaving no time to breathe and certainly no opportunity to take a break and shut it off. Though on that level, there is also too little to go on in order to really improve strategy. It is a game to be experienced rather than be approached in a structured way to be beaten. But this experience of the first times can probably not really be repeated after the meta lessons have been learned.